A Most Unusual House


First off, there was the name. A name designed to catch your attention, three words that you never hear together juxtaposed into a single improbable object. The first word of the title is a common one, used by government and citizen, said every day by babies and toddlers and postal workers and carpenters. The last word of the title is rarely said, and never in polite company, perhaps the second-most offensive word in the English language (and thus appropriated by British punks.)

She is sometimes asked: why that name? Why that word? And the co-founder, a tall and ravishing redhead who was winner of children’s beauty pageants and a Japanese dance team competition  before moving on to sing Janis Joplin songs at the annual memorial concert, smiles.

She might tell you the etymology, or she might take the feminist line and point out the misogyny of attitude toward the word itself. “The way people think of that word is the way men think of women,” she might say. “As though the worst thing you can call somebody is an organ possessed by half the population.”

And then there was the show itself. Before she moved to New York and became a much-valued member of the downtown cabaret scene featured in the New Yorker and Time Out, the co-founder lived in Portland where she found other like-minded performers. They worked in restaurants and took catering gigs to pay the rent while they worked on their act. Skits, comedy, characters, music, dancing, all performed in the dining room of the restaurant where they worked. The performers engaged the dinner guests, brought them up and made them part of the act.  It was a big success, selling out show after show.

It was not enough to save the restaurant, not enough to keep the group together, but while it lasted it was unique.


Written in response to The Daily Post:Unusual

Arguing with Moshe


“I appreciate Eretz Yisroel,” she said, “but not Medinat Yisroel.”

He raised his eyebrows over the black glasses frames. Aside from the tan, he looked exactly as he had in Brooklyn. “A difference you see? Please,” he said, beckoning. “Enlighten me.”

She saw she had offended him, but this was a cherished opinion, a debate she’d had many times in coffee shops and bars. “The state is a creation of a secular body which has produced a secular state often at odds with traditional Jewish values. The Holocaust shouldn’t forever define us.”

The kind eyes watched her with tolerant amusement.


Friday Fictioneers

Grandaddy Cat


Grandaddy Cat was likely the smartest man in North Carolina. It was him outsmarted old King Duke and put himself at the top of the heap of tobacco growers, him who made the most money a season, year after year.

So why you never hear of him? Why you see that King Duke name on university buildings and stadiums and in the tiny print on most every pack of smokes in a newsstand?

Well, on top of being smart, Granddaddy Cat was stubborn. What he knowed, he knowed and God himself could not change his mind. One thing he knowed was that men—real men—was never gonna smoke no fancy machine-rolled cigarettes. Real men smoke pipes and cigars. Always had, always would.

So when that fellow Bonsack come down here with his automatic cigarette rolling machine and try to sell it to Grandaddy Cat, why that old man don’t even let him into the house. So Bonsack goes up the road to the little King Duke house. I tell you, that house ain’t little no more. When old Duke’s grandson died last year, they donated it to the university. Now the president stays in it when he come to town.

This here is Grandaddy Cat’s house. They  fixin’ to tear it down.

 Sunday Photo Fiction



This story is based on the 2003 Ross McElwee Documentary Bright Leaves, a short film well worth watching.

A Superstitious Lot


Scott looked up from the heap of papers as Lieutenant Shackleton came into the cabin. “Well?” he asked, his voice brittle.

“The dry dock did some good, Captain, but she’s still taking on water.”

Scott passed a hand over his tired face, glanced at the barometer. “How’s the tide?”

“We’ve about a half hour until the flood.”

“The dogs are all aboard? All hands accounted for?”

“Yes sir,” said Shackleton. Then, with some asperity,  “Since yesterday.”

Scott glowered at the tone. “No ship I command will ever set sail on a Friday, Lieutenant. We’ve enough bad luck as it is.”

“Of course not, sir.”

“Let us weigh anchor, Lieutenant.”

On deck, Scott was astonished to see the docks packed with cheering crowds. Perhaps this voyage would be have some luck after all.

The crowd gasped. A sailor capering atop the mainmast lost his footing and fell, smashing into the deck.


What Pegman Saw


Historical note:

The Discovery Expedition was the first official British exploration of the Antarctic regions since James Clark Ross’s voyage sixty years earlier. Organized on a large scale under a joint committee of the Royal Society and the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), the new expedition carried out scientific research and geographical exploration in what was then largely an untouched continent. It launched the Antarctic careers of many who would become leading figures in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, including Robert Falcon Scott who led the expedition, Ernest Shackleton, Edward Wilson, Frank Wild, Tom Crean and William Lashly.

On 21 December, 1901, as the ship was leaving Lyttelton to the cheers of large crowds, a young able seaman, Charles Bonner, fell to his death from the top of the mainmast, which he had climbed so as to return the crowd’s applause. 

You can read more about this amazing adventure here.

Bookshelf c. 2012



This is a snapshot the bookshelf in the living room of the apartment I had after getting divorced, the first place of my own where I had a bedroom for both of my daughters. The shelf sat against a long wall that clearly had been designed for a television set. It was the largest thing in the room by far. The shelves themselves had been purchased for fifty dollars from an Iowa City boutique that went out of business. I think I paid fifty dollars. The shelf has a story of its own.

The bookshelf holds the keys to my entire life. The Seth Thomas clock my mother once snatched off the mantelpiece and hurled at my dad during one of their many drunken fights. The brown moonshine jug that the two of them bought in New England when they were newly married. An Argent lamp that was in my great grandmother’s bedroom when she moved from New York to Tombstone, Arizona in 1880. A stuffed animal my daughter made while we watched cartoons together. A wooden cutout superhero created by one of my best high school friends. A cartoon-faced clock I made when I lived in a huge loft in Portland that hung on the wall above many fantastic  parties. A framed 1928 campaign poster of Herbert Hoover I bought from an antique store.

And then there are the books. Stacked in random order, there are fiction and poetry and philosophy and pulp. Reference books I have had for forty years. Books that belonged to my father, my mother. Reaching in and taking one out at random is one of my great pleasures, for just holding it will usually lead me into another world. I can remember my father’s hands as he wrote the inscription in the Webster’s Dictionary he gave me when I went off to college. Dear Josh, The words are all here. Just put them in the right order. Love, Dad

I lived above a bookstore in a city famous for them, and was fond of trading odd jobs for store credit. I’d usually buy enormous art books I could otherwise never afford. I love thrift stores and the treasures they sometimes yield. When I hold a book from my shelf, I can tell you a story about where I got it, what I was doing, what I remember. Books I paid a dime for, books I put on a credit card, the countless poetry books I bought when I was drunk and was moved to weeping by a line or two.

Reading the books brings memories of another sort. Living in the Oregon hills and crouching in a garden shed by a glowing woodstove while the wind howled outside, sipping whiskey  and smoking while reading The Three-Day Blow by the light of an oil lamp. Or sitting on a train trying to get through The Sound and the Fury before Christmas vacation was over and realizing I could never in a million years understand it and then, as though passing through a gate, understanding it and reading it and seeing what it really is. Reading on stage at random from Outlaw Poetry  while two women acted out the words and a jazz duo improvised at top volume.

I sat on a trolley reading an 1893 copy of Thoughts by Marcus Aurelius. A student of 1895 had penciled notes in the margins and underlined certain passages. He was trying to improve his character. The book had been written in the first century AD and read by this boy in 1893. As I sat there it was 1998. Now it’s 2017. The thread of time wends through that book. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

These days I don’t read as much as I once did before I carried a computer in my pocket that could show me every newspaper in the world at a touch, display a kindle library of thousands of titles, play any  movie or TV show or song I could think of. I used to sit and lose myself in books in a way I no longer do.

I love this bookshelf. I love what it means and what I remember about it, the memories that surround it. Though  I still have all the items, this exact configuration existed for only a few weeks. Though sad, that is how it should be. At its best, a bookshelf is an organic thing, evolving and shifting.

So the next time you visit a friend (or better still, a stranger), take a  look at their bookshelf and see what it says to you.

About them, about yourself. Look for the familiar or the strange.

This is in response to The Daily Post’s request for collage.

My daughter Liv practicing her steps in front of the bookshelf prior to a dance marathon her senior year, 2013

She’s Still Here


Standing at the back of the hushed hallway I  could only hear every other word the docent was saying. My husband craned his head to listen.

“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “Something about the woman who lived here and the widow’s walk. I guess the old ship captain died at sea or something.”

Little Herbie stood in the doorway looking across the velvet rope into the child’s room. The tiny beds with chenille spreads, a painted wagon perched on the corner of the hooked rug as though left in play.  “She’s still here,” he said, eyes wide. “She’s still waiting.”


Friday Fictioneers

Old What’s-His-Name


For decades it seemed that time had no purchase on the old man, save for the barely noticeable graying of hair and beard.  He worked the bar of the White Horse six days a week, knowing each patron by face and preference, yet  universally cold and rude to all.

To the men of the town, he was a fixture like the city gate or the statue of Lord Nelson. He was familiar to them, but engendered no fondness. The old man was tolerated but not liked.

During a rare December ice storm, he had taken a bad fall, breaking his left leg under him. Bound to a hospital bed, the vitality drained from him like water through a sieve. A week was like a year as he lay there, his hair turning white then vanishing altogether, his skin like bruised fruit.

Yet he would not die, the tenacity of life long outlasting any reason for it. Years and years of wasting until the day he finally died, emaciated and almost unrecognizable.

The wake at the White Horse was remarkably well-attended, but within a year the old man was forgotten. There was not even a photograph to remember him by.


Sunday Photo Fiction


Rite of Passage


Estéban loafed in the entryway, clearly nervous.

“You’ll do great,” I said. “Besides, what’s the worst that can happen?”

He gave a wry smile. We both knew the worst all too well.

Olivér came out of the back carrying two of the loose jackets he favored for working. “You ready?” he said, handing one to Estéban.

“Been ready,” he answered, shrugging into the coat. He took the baseball cap from the pocket and crammed it on his head. Olivér laughed.

“Like a cock before its first fight. Ok, then. Let’s see if you have learned anything.”

I watched them walk toward the Av Jiménez bus stop. Estéban looked almost grown up, though he barely came to Olivér’s shoulder. He was twelve now, old enough to be working. A skilled carterista  could bring home hundreds.

It was risky, but Olivér was the best teacher in Bogatá.

That was something, anyway.


What Pegman Saw

According to Lonely PlanetBogatá is  safer than it used to be, but they warn that traveling on the TransMilenio buses can result in getting your pocket picked. Thievery is high art in Latin America, and no skill is more difficult to master than that of the carterista, the ubiquitous pickpocket. 



A Reporter’s Notebook: The Bridge


Steel Bridge, Portland Oregon. Photo by Thad Roan

I went to the Jungle on the east side of the river. As I suspected, Roughhouse Red was there, all too eager to share my bottle in exchange for giving me the low-down.

He took a long pull, the whiskey trickling into his grizzled whiskers. “Ooh, that’s good,” he said. “What was it you want to know?”

“I heard somebody died on the bridge last night. I wanted to see if you knew anything about it.”

He nodded, his mouth tense. “You heard right. Except it was two people. Kids, not sixteen year old.  Boy and a girl.”

“I thought the pedestrian walkway was supposed to end all that.”

“Yep,” he said, and took another swallow. He pointed his chin at the Steel Bridge, the iron girders studded with bolts making it look like something from a horror movie. “You see the way the bottom half telescopes up into the top? Used to be that a feller crossing on them lower deck rails could hear it when it was about to raise up. Happens automatically when a train comes, you know. No bridge-keeper. Once you heard it start you had about forty seconds to get across before you got mashed by the girders. Lot of guys got killed in the old days. But a few years ago they put in that walkway and them days was over.”

“So how come the two kids were killed?”

He held up the pint, mostly gone. “You mind if I polish her?” I shook my head. He drained it and wiped his mouth. “Lovers’ suicide. Made themselves  a double noose, then wrapped the middle around the upper girder  and jumped off together. Dangled there for hours until the Amtrak come through at 6:05 taking commuters up to Seattle. Bumped against the side of the passenger cars. Real romantic.”

I looked at the bridge, graceful and lovely but also curiously menacing, as though it had enjoyed the tale.


Written in response to The Daily Post: Bridge prompt.   Based on a true story.

Mrs. Jones


It was like some giant had lifted off the roof and dumped in the entire contents of a thrift store.

The huge room seemed cramped and choked by teetering piles of boxes, furniture and other clutter.

Tall wardrobes bursting with clothes, cardboard cartons vomiting sheafs of paper onto the dirty floor, stacks of chairs missing legs, broken toys, soiled dolls.

The house reeked of damp mildew, cat piss, rotting food, spoiled milk.

Basted over everything was a sickly artificial scent I later learned came from hundreds and hundreds of dryer sheets Mrs. Jones scattered over the piles to discourage the vermin.



Friday Fictioneers